Union Street Fire

“One by one—
Nobly done—
Seeks the children through the smoke,
Though the red flames break the door,
Though the white fumes through the floor
Curl, to stifle and to choke.”

ALICE AYRES’ by Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley 1896

If you walk up St Martin’s Le Grand from St Pauls towards the Barbican in the City of London you will pass on your left a small green open space called Postman’s Park. This was once the burial ground for St Botolph’s, Aldersgate but in 1880 it was opened as a public garden. In 1900 Postman’s Park became the home of George Frederic Watt’s ‘Memorial to Self-Sacrifice’, honouring ordinary working men and women who gave their lives to save others. Among the 54 memorial tablets, remembering such people as Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who died in January 24th 1863 of “terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion” and Leigh Pitt who in June 7th, 2007, “saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself.” is a ceramic plaque remembering a young woman from Isleworth called Alice Ayres.

Alice Ayres

Alice was born in Wallpole, Isleworth, on 12th September 1859, the seventh child of John Ayres, a carter, and his wife Mary. By the time she was 11, the family had gained three more children and moved into Magdala Road, Isleworth. In 1877 her older sister, Mary Ann, married an oil and paint dealer Henry Chandler who owned a shop at 194, Union Street, Southwark, close to the present day Tate Modern.

In 1885 Alice, now 26, joined Henry and Mary in their family flat over the shop as a general servant and nurse maid. Her job was to look after her three nieces, five year old Edith, Ellen who was four and three year old Elizabeth. Alice was clearly devoted to her young charges. One neighbour said, " No merry making, no excursion, no family festivity could tempt her from her self-imposed duties. The children must be bathed and put to bed, the clothes must be mended, the rooms must be ‘tidied up’, the cloth must be laid, the supper carefully prepared, before Alice would dream of setting forth on her own pleasures." Another described the young woman as “not one of your fast sort—gentle and quiet-spoke, and always busy about her work.”

Union Street Fire, Borough

On the night of 24th April 1885 a fire started in the shop which spread rapidly through the store of paint, oil and gunpowder. Although the Fire Brigade were quickly on the scene such was the heat that they were unable to raise ladders and rescue the occupants. An anxious crowd gathered and began shouting for Alice who had appeared at a second floor window to jump. Instead the young woman, clad only in her nightgown, turned back to the room that she shared with her nieces, found a feather mattress and threw it out of the window. Then she returned with Edith who she dropped safely onto the mattress. Twice more Alice turned back into the flames, returning first with Ellen who she threw into the waiting arms of one of the crowd below and then with Elizabeth who although badly burnt landed safely on the mattress. Sadly the little girl was to die later from her appalling injuries.

Alice then jumped herself. Faint with smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion she fell badly, first hitting a sign projecting from the front of the shop and then missing the mattress. Badly burnt and with severe spinal injuries Alice was rushed to Guy’s Hospital. Because of public interest bulletins were issued hourly on Alice’s condition and even Queen Victoria sent a lady-in-waiting to enquire after her. Sadly Alice Ayres died on 26th April 1885. Her last words apparently were “I tried my best and could try no more”.

This was a time when society was beginning to recognise and value the role played by working people and this lead to a growing interest in their lives and activities. Alice was held up as a role model, a dutiful working class servant sacrificing her own life to save the lives of her employer’s children, completely ignoring the fact that in reality she was a loving aunt saving the lives of her own nieces. One commentator described this process as ‘secular canonisation’, transforming Alice from a hero into a working class saint.

AYRES Memorial

Such was the adulation that when a memorial service was held for her at St. Saviour’s Church, now Southwark Cathedral, there were so many mourners that many had to be turned away. Her funeral in Isleworth Cemetery was attended by over 10,000 people who watched her coffin being carried through the streets by 16 firemen. The plan to have 20 girls dressed in white from Alice’s old school sing at her graveside was only cancelled because of a severe hailstorm.

After the funeral a fund was set up to attract public subscriptions for a memorial. By August 1885 it had raised over £100, worth about £8000 today, and an impressive red granite Egyptian style obelisk over 4 metres tall was erected over her grave. It was inspired by ’Cleopatra’s Needle’ which had been installed on London’s Embankment just 7 years earlier. Alice’s memorial is still the tallest in Isleworth Cemetery. On the base it says…

AYRES Monument Base

Sacred to the memory of ALICE AYRES, aged 26 years, who met her death through a fire which occurred in Union Street, Borough, the 24th of April, 1885 A.D.
Amidst the sudden terrors of the conflagration, with true courage and judgment, she heroically rescued the children committed to her charge. To save them, she three times braved the flames; at last, leaping from the burning house, she sustained injuries from the effects of which she died on April 26th 1885.

This memorial was erected by public subscription to commemorate a noble act of unselfish courage.

“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”

Ayres  Postmans Park

In 1936 a street near the scene of the fire was renamed Ayres Street in Alice’s honour. In Patrick Marber’s play ‘Closer’ written in 1997 and made into a film in 2004, a leading character fabricates a false identity using Alice’s name which she sees on the ‘Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’ in Postman’s Park.

A short film about the’Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’ in Postman’s Park.

— from Martyn Day